African Studies Contextualizing Human Rights in Buhari’s Nigeria

There is no modern political history of Africa without a history of struggle—for the recognition of racial equality; for political emancipation; for the affirmation of political freedom; and for the realization of human rights.

One of the earliest incidences of the struggle for the recognition of racial equality was during the Atlantic slave trade when many Africans resisted enslavement through shipboard insurrections against European slave traders. A famous tale that is also well-documented is of a man called Tomba who conducted a shipboard revolt against a crew of English slavers in 1721, in the region now known as Sierra Leone.

Although Tomba’s resistance was repressed, it has come to epitomize the struggle for human dignity in a period where the recognition of dignity was colorized and, as such, considered non-attributable based on stereotypical skin hues. When this struggle ended with the abolition of slave trade in the early nineteenth century, a different form of struggle emerged on the continent; this one against colonial rule.

Africa’s collective movement for political emancipation was symbolized through various political instances: in Kenya, it was through the Mau Mau Uprising led by Jomo Kenyatta. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was through the nationalist movement led by Patrice Emery Lumumba. In Algeria, liberation was steered by the revolutionary movement of Ahmed Ben Bella.

In the 1990s, the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa’s Rivonia 11, among whom were Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, further exemplified the struggle for political freedom. The resistance of the Rivonia 11 was rooted in the intellectual persuasion that all men are free-born, equal in dignity and, therefore, should have the liberty to assert choices. The ideological prevalence of political liberation and the centrality of human will and participation to the formation of governance legitimized this struggle. More so, it created a rallying point for support, which culminated in political emancipation across the continent. However, with political emancipation emerged another struggle:

Unlike earlier struggles, the affirmation of political freedom took the form of an internal struggle for civil space within many African societies. The hegemonic forces against such movements were neither foreigners nor slavers but Africans that had constituted themselves into a privileged oligarchy, replicating erstwhile traditions of repression. In many ways, the struggle for the affirmation of political freedom mirrored the earlier wresting of eighteenth-century France from the control of the bourgeois.

Following political emancipation, bourgeois-styled governance was constituted in many African societies, including Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s Central African Republic, Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire and Idi Amin’s Uganda. While these structures have mostly been dismantled on the continent through sedulous revolts against political haughtiness, there is yet another struggle in which most of the continent has been encased.

This struggle is for the realization of human and peoples’ rights. The first phrase that often jumps at many governments in a conversation about human rights is dangerous activism or an orchestrated rebellion against formalized governments. There is, often, a question of political motivation and the suspicion of local oppositions or foreign influence against an existing order of state that has been democratically validated.

While the counter-hegemonic nature of rights-based resistance may very well justify suspicion (since resistance is not always in direct favour of the formalized government), it does not accord suspicion with credence. The struggle for the realization of human rights should not be insulted with such cavils and call-outs as a congregation of pretence. The reaction to this struggle must proceed from an understanding that the preservation of rights is a prerequisite to the formation of stable states.

Human rights are an impetus for the peaceful existence of society. Adopting Shakespearean wittiness on normative synonymies in the infamous Romeo and Juliet, that which we call human rights could very well mean the vital essentials for livelihood, sustenance and human capabilities. In very basic parlance, every human being desires a place to live, something to eat, strength and vitality. In the language of rights, these three desires are, respectively: the right to adequate housing; the right to food; and the right to health.

Constitutionally, societies are formed for the furtherance of social contracts. Typically, a social contract assigns specific duties to governance structures towards the achievement of the well-being of a population. And it is in this way that societies develop into nation-states. Where governance structures fail to realize this well-being, they legitimize a struggle, which, if left unheeded, may disrupt the very existence of their societies.

Buhari’s Nigeria is not immune to such disruption. Prior to the 2015 presidential elections, there were several promises made for the advancement of the welfare of the state. Among these promises was that, under an APC government, 720,000 jobs would be created. The APC won the elections, however, data from the National Bureau of Statistics reveals that 518,000 people became unemployed between December 2015 and March 2016, bringing the total figure of those unemployed in Nigeria to 1.45 million people.

With the heaving pressures of economic recession, more jobs are at stake. And where such unemployment rates are not reversed, the space for social disruption emerges. To avoid this impact, it is pertinent for the governance structures to develop short and long-term strategies towards the progressive realization of the right to work and, invariably, the right to an adequate standard of living.

Aside from unemployment, another struggle trigger is the Boko Haram insurgency. While progress is being made in combatting this insurgency, attention needs to be paid to the plight of the displaced population of more than 2 million people with a plethora of concerns ranging from inadequate shelter to food insecurity and lack of access to health care. Though short-term humanitarian assistance is laudable, it is important that durable solutions be created to avoid protracted displacement that may trigger a struggle.

Besides the insurgency, another significant trigger that needs to be addressed is forced evictions. In March 2017, about 4,700 people were evicted from their homes in the Otodo Gbame community in Lagos. Previously, in November 2016, 30,000 Lagosians were evicted from their communities without adequate notice. With the growing drive to dismantle informal settlements for development, these kinds of eviction have become rampant in various parts of the country. But the continuance of these evictions legitimizes a struggle, which needs to be heeded since the government’s over-aching objective of development cannot isolate certain groups to the benefit of others within the society.

A fourth concern is the political rhetoric of the new pro-Biafra movement. There is often a temptation to regard this issue with a dismissive gesture, in part, due to the protracted nature of post-War reconciliation. However, such a response will constitute an affront on the gravity of the agitation. The Biafran agitation for self-determination needs to be considered against the prevalent governance structure, which is in need of more inclusiveness.

Overall, if the elusiveness of change is to be endured, it is pertinent for the government to heed the current triggers of Nigeria’s internal struggles and develop pragmatic solutions that ensure the well-being of local populations and the long-term advancement of Nigeria⎈